by Asim Jalis
THE NURNBERG FUNNEL
Here is a book I read yesterday: The Nurnberg Funnel by John
Carroll (on minimalism). For more details take a look at
http://people.cs.vt.edu/~carroll/index.html. The Nurnberg Funnel
is a means of directly pouring information into a students brain
through a funnel stuck into his head.
Minimalism is an XP-like movement in technical writing. The main
insight is that people don't learn systematically (or in phases),
but rather organically. They learn in layers. The tradition that
Minimalism reacts to is called the Systems Approach.
THE SYSTEMATIC APPROACH
In the systems approach the way to write a technical document is
to decompose the subject into a "logical" order. To master a
subject the reader must plod through the text cover-to-cover.
Learning is an all-or-nothing affair. The only way to know
something is to know everything. It is much like a waterfall
architecture. To get any functionality you must get all the
This is of course a caricature designed to make a point. In
practice systematic writing incorporates some minimalistic ideas
out of pure pragmatism. But the underlying philosophy of
systematic writing is to pour the information into the reader's
head. The concepts generally are organized bottom-up. You start
with the basic building blocks and build up to more advanced
concepts. You cannot understand the advanced concepts until you
understand the elementary ones.
UNIVERSITY USE SYSTEMATIC APPROACH
Incidentally some universities are also organized this way.
Courses are organized into a sequence of prerequisites. You can't
jump straight into a 400 level course. You must first take a 100
level course, then a 200, and so on.
HOW PEOPLE LEARN
The minimalist approach is inspired by how people actually learn
(according to the minimalists). They don't learn linearly,
building one concept on top of another. Rather they learn to
solve immediate problems. They are goal driven.
For example, given a thick manual on how to use a word processor
most people are eager to get started quickly. They stumble
through the program, making mistakes and learning. They dig out
the manual when they get stuck.
The focus of people is on getting started quickly, on creating
value. They don't like to invest days and weeks accumulating
concepts with no obvious applicability.
Minimalist documents get out of the way of users. They help the
user get started, and then they help him solve problems as they
arise. They can be read in any order. There is no right sequence.
While systematic documents are focused on technology, minimalist
documents are focused on the user. They address the concerns the
For example, to write a letter to mom in Word does not require
reading the whole book. A short paragraph is sufficient to get
most people started. Then later as they want to do more advanced
things they can poke around to figure out how to do them.
Systematic documents attempt to do Big Learning Up Front, instead
of doing the learning incrementally, and evolutionarily, driven
by user needs.
There is a definite parallel here between Minimalism and XP. This
kind of duality arises in a lot of different fields (possibly in
all fields). I have now seen in it business (traditional Planned
Manufacturing versus Just-In-Time and Lean Manufacturing), and
now also in technical writing.
A common example of minimalism are FAQ documents. These are
completely user and problem focused, and they don't need to be
read in a particular order. They are valuable because they give
people what they want. They get out of the way of learning.
Here are some virtues of FAQ's: They don't try to feed people
concepts or theories. They solve their immediate problems. Each
item has an immediate and well-defined goal. It does not get
A common example of systematic documents are programming language
texts. For example most Java and C++ books have a systematic
organization. First you learn about integers, then about control
structures, then about data structures and so on.
Compare the difference between the generic systematic language
text and K&R. K&R starts out with an extremely minimalist flavor.
Their use of the hello world example is the essense of
minimalism. Get the user started. Writing hello world is
immediately gratifying and hooks the reader. But then the rest of
the book falls back into the systematic trap.
Larry Wall's books are also engaging for precisely the same
reason. He layers the knowledge. He even talks about this
layering (so it is deliberate). First he teaches you baby talk
Perl. So like a baby you can say most of the things you want to
say. As you grow older you acquire more layers of complexity that
build up on the baby talk foundation. Larry's extremely readable
writing might be a big reason for Perl's success. Larry makes you
laugh. It's fun to read his book.
He also talks about knowledge as an onion, with layers upon
layers. Each layer is coherent. At each level you are able to
produce real programs and to create value. You break the journey
to becoming a wizard into tiny iterations.
Another characteristic of minimalist documents is that they give
you immediate gratification. The long-term goal is that you will
learn language X. Systematic documents assume this is sufficient
to stay inspired through tomes of insipid writing. Minimalist
texts by gratifying and rewarding the reader immediately (by
showing how to do cool things immediately) are much more
engaging. They split the big goal into a lot of tiny meaningful
goals. Systematic texts split up the big goal into tiny
HOW DO YOU CREATE MINIMALIST DOCUMENTS
The minimalist folks have hit real insight, but I think they
still haven't quite explained how to do it. They themselves say
that writing a minimalist book is much harder, and much less
mechanical, and requires much more creativity, than writing a
For example, how could you teach someone Java while achieving
real goals the whole time.
In reality most books fall somewhere in between. They
opportunistically use minimalism wherever they can and then fall
back on systematic writing when they can't.
Incidentally, math education faces similar issues. Systematic
texts take the reader through the landscape of math, force
feeding him the concepts, without trying to engage him, or to
address any of his real problems. They teach concepts for the
sake of concepts. And they are written in the mind-numbing
sequential order. To understand chapter 3 you have to read
chapter 2 and 1. There is no short-term gratification.
So here's an idea: Take over the math textbook market by writing
a minimalist math textbook. Perhaps a math FAQ. Something that
solves real problems people have, that can be read in any order.
USE INTERESTING EXAMPLES
One way to make programming books more engaging might be to use
more interesting examples. I am currently reading up on .NET
Remoting. This is Microsoft's library for distributed components.
A client news up an object and then calls methods on it.
Meanwhile the object really lives on the server. The Remoting
glue creates the (leaky) illusion that everything is happening
Most texts on this are mind-numbingly boring. They use the
example of getting the server's time, or getting the value of a
counter on the server.
It occurred to me that using remoting you can write a simple
napster application in about a page of code. Whoa! Now that's
interesting. I wouldn't mind reading a page of code that showed
me how to make my own napster.
Other cool things you can do with remoting: Write a text based
chat client. Write a program that lets you play Chess, or Go, or
Tic-Tac-Toe on the internet. Write a program that lets you create
a denial of service attack. Find the value of Pi on a network of
computers. Solve NP complete problems by throwing hardware at
The weird thing is that these are not even that hard to do. It is
possible to do a spike program for each one of these areas that
is about a page to two pages long.
Of course, some of these might be legally risky (like napster and
the denial of service program -- also worms and viruses could be
easily written using remoting, but that too might not go well
with corporate legal departments). Nevertheless, there are many
other harmless applications too that are still interesting, like
the Chess program.
Here's another one: a pair programming editor based on notepad.
MINIMALISM IS HARDER TO ACHIEVE
Getting back to the topic of minimalism, it is more than just
Minimalism taxes the mind in the same way as XP does. It forces
you to look for small steps. In a BDUF design you do not need to
worry about keeping the system functioning throughout its
evolution. In XP and also in minimalism you have to keep the
system coherent as it evolves. It puts more constraints on the
I am interested in brainstorming and learning more about this. I
think economically this could be extremely profitable. And also I
suspect it is something we would be very good at. It changes the
game and takes it out of the field of the heads-down
nose-to-the-grindstone systematic writers. Suddenly being ADD, or
easily distracted is no longer a liability. It magically turns
into the most valuable asset. A book that can maintain an ADD's
interest could blow the competition out of the water.
Carroll reported results in which people were able to accomplish
twice as many tasks in the same amount of time when they were
trained using minimalist docs compared to when they used
Incidentally, this is not academic hoo-ha. It has some powerful
economic implications. A software program with good usable
documentation generates fewer support costs. It becomes popular
and can dominate its market. Docs are big business.
Consider Tim O'Reilly, who is one of the open source millionaires
and is funding Perl and many other open source technologies. He
might be considered the Bill Gates of open source software. And
he built his empire, not from creating software, but from writing
docs for it.
Here is what I am interested in exploring: What are some concrete
techniques for creating minimalist documents. Carroll proposes
task cards. The cards force the instructions to be brief. Each
card explains how to accomplish a particular task. They are
modelled after little cheat sheets people sometimes create for
But there must be ways of creating more traditional books and
learning tutorials using minimalist approaches.
HOW TO READ A MATH BOOK
This also connects with my experience in math, where I learned
much more by solving problems than by reading texts. The problems
engaged me, and made math come alive for me. I was able to get
started immediately. In fact the best way to read a math book is
to first do the problems, then read the text just-in-time as you
get stuck on the problems.
READ THE MANUAL FIRST
Another interesting point Carroll makes is that most systematic
docs always contain the warning: do not operate the program until
you have read the manual. They place the warning in many places
to ensure compliance. The warning is futile. Most people operate
the system anyway.
Incidentally, I tried to make this note somewhat minimalistic by
giving headings to all the topics, so you can skip the ones that
don't interest you and zoom in on the ones that do. You can read
the items in any order. It is ridiculous to assume that I can
achieve a nurnberg funnel and do a binary copy from my brain to
yours. I can't. Our conversations are much more enjoyable because
they have this non-linear, goal-driven, un-systematic quality.